It is said that a filmmaker spends his entire career making the same film over and over again. How accurate this philosophy is depends on which filmmaker it is applied to, though one who is quite suited to it is Yasujiro Ozu. As a director, he developed and maintained a style of his own which easily distinguishes his films from others and repeatedly addressed and explored a singular theme within his body of work: the relationship between children and their parents. While I enjoy and appreciate his films, I don’t usually approach them with the same kind of curiosity that I do with those of other directors because of this consistency. In other words, I have a fairly fixed set of expectations whenever I begin an Ozu film.
When I watched his 1933 film "Passing Fancy" I wasn’t struck by any drastic differences in his style or subject matter, yet I still found myself reacting slightly differently to it for some reason, getting more out of it than I expected. This surprised me, not least of all because this particular film was silent (if anything, I was afraid it being a silent film would shorten my attention span), but nonetheless something about it grabbed me, and I quite enjoyed it.
"Passing Fancy" focuses on single father Kihachi (played by Takeshi Sakamoto, who would reprise the character in a number of subsequent Ozu films including "A Story of Floating Weeds") and his feisty son Tomio (Tomio Aoki, who made a strong impression in Ozu’s previous film "I Was Born, But…"). Kihachi spends his days working alongside his friend and neighbor Jiro at a brewery, often retreating to a restaurant near his house where he is on friendly terms with the owner. One night, he meets a young woman named Harue and helps her get a job at the restaurant. Romantically intrigued by her, Kihachi is eventually forced to come to terms with both Jiro as a rival for Harue’s affection and, more significantly, his devotion to his son.
Harue clearly represents the passing fancy of the film’s title, not causing conflict so much as helping Kihachi realize the strong, unrivaled bond he shares with his son. Ozu infuses this study of loyalty with a light, pleasant tone, deploying visual comedy to great effect. One simple yet great scene occurs at the beginning, in which an empty change purse circulates around a storytelling gathering, inspected and rejected by numerous would-be thieves. In another memorable moment, Tomio, ever the responsible one, wakes up Kihachi and Jiro for work with a whack to each of their shins. As humorous as the role reversal between the father and son is, it is also at times handled with seriousness, with Kihachi both grimly accepting his shortcomings and vowing to not let them interfere with his son’s development.
There are a few possible reasons why this particular Ozu captured my interest as much as it did. One may very well be the inclusion of a single parent in the story, unique among Ozu’s more complete family portraits. Another may be that Ozu’s gentle style suits the silent film format (stubbornly choosing to hone his craft in silent cinema, he famously withheld from using sound technology until 1936, some time after its emergence in the Japanese film industry), allowing his images to hold more precedence than in his sound features. Whatever it was, "Passing Fancy" at once made for an entertaining treat and re-ignited my interest in Ozu. Whether you’re a devoted fan of his work or simply curious, this one is certainly worth a look.